As New Hampshire’s economy begins to restart after COVID-19-related closures, the Keene Family YMCA is approaching its reopening one step at a time.
Much like the state, the Y is taking a staged approach, with restrictions to be lifted gradually.
Currently focused on online programming, day care for children of essential workers and community service, the organization’s next focus will be expanding day-care services and bringing back some in-person recreational offerings. Decisions will be heavily informed by guidance from the state and federal governments as well as the YMCA of the USA, according to Dan Smith, the Keene Y’s CEO.
“The decision to open is shaped by the state and by guidance we get from YUSA and from health professionals — both in our area and the CDC — to make sure we open in the safest way possible,” he said. “We’re going to be very committed to that. We’re not just open, but we’re all practicing safe ways of being together in that building.”
Limited child care has remained available during Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order, while programs that closed have been supplemented with virtual classes and exercise courses. The organization temporarily closed its Summit Road facility to the public in mid-March, a little more than a week before Sununu issued his stay-home order in response to COVID-19.
The YMCA’s first goal throughout has been to meet community needs, Smith said. Despite the building’s being shut down, the Y has been working to provide services aimed at helping people during the crisis.
“We’ve partnered with the Red Cross; we’ve offered six blood drives and counting,” he said. “We’ve also been providing wellness check-ins with a lot of our members and providing shopping and grocery and pharmaceutical shopping for those who are perhaps more vulnerable to the virus.”
The next blood drive is set for May 26 from noon to 5 p.m. Those interested in donating blood can sign up online.
According to Smith, online programming was made available within days of the building’s closing, with a number of digital classes. The organization has also been releasing free exercise classes and family activities, posted daily to the Keene Family YMCA Facebook page. The Y is also hosting a teen “drop in” call on Mondays at 4 p.m., as a way to offer local teens a safe means to reconnect with friends and other community members.
As for access to its building, Smith said the YMCA currently remains in phase one, offering day-care services to employees deemed essential by the state, with groups restricted to eight children.
One of the priorities in the upcoming phase two is to extend day-care services to non-essential employees as they begin to be called back to work.
Smith said he expects this expanded day care, as well as outdoor exercise classes, to be among the next activities the Y is able to resume.
He also said the organization is waiting to hear from the state about whether the Y can host day-camp programs. In the meantime, he said, it is preparing to operate those camps with additional safety measures. Those include limiting groups to eight kids and two staff members to ensure the total number of people does not rise above 10, in accordance with one of the governor’s emergency orders.
Later, the YMCA plans to reopen its wellness center, pool, and then, in the final stage, to bring back the rest of its offerings, including basketball, racquetball, the climbing wall, martial arts, fencing and pickleball.
Later-stage phases also include indoor classes as well as use of the weight room and exercise equipment. Smith said the organization has already begun moving machines to ensure proper distancing when the building reopens and has created a stringent sanitizing policy.
Those who come to the facility will be subject to temperature checks and will be asked a series of questions about their health and any possible exposure to the novel coronavirus.
Like many other people and businesses, Smith said the YMCA is being cautious about the future but noted that the organization’s roughly 5,000 members have been dedicated to helping keep it going. He said only 15 percent of them have canceled their membership, which Smith attributed to job loss.
As for the YMCA itself, he said many variables will determine if it faces significant financial difficulty in the future, but the organization is planning for likely shortfalls.
With metered street parking in downtown Keene temporarily free due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the city’s parking office has already seen a five-figure revenue shortfall.
Meanwhile, a City Council committee is recommending Keene temporarily waive two other sources of revenue to provide additional support to businesses and residents during the pandemic.
After relaxing parking regulations in March to help facilitate curbside commerce, the city has not been collecting meter fees and hasn’t been handing out many parking tickets, according to city officials. City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the parking office was down about $19,000 in revenue as fiscal year 2020 draws to a close. During the past couple of fiscal years, the revenue from parking meter fees alone hovered just below $550,000, according to city budget records.
“In the meters, we are about $12,000 down under the prior year,” Dragon told the City Council’s finance, organization and personnel committee during Thursday night’s budget review session, citing a May 7 report. “The fines, we are about $7,300 [down]. So it’s just over $19,000 right now, but if we continue, and we don’t start to see the revenues pick up, and we don’t start to see more activity in the downtown, that will be a concern.”
She said that the losses for this year will be offset due to a position in the parking office that the city has decided to leave vacant.
As for how much the revenue losses will total when the fiscal year concludes at the end of June, she said that depends on how long Keene continues to offer free parking. She said the traffic will help indicate to city officials when is the right time to bring back the meter fees, but that the first step will likely be returning to the enforcement of two-hour parking restrictions in the area.
Restaurants throughout the state have been limited to take-out and delivery service since mid-March, but Gov. Chris Sununu announced earlier this month that restaurants will be able to resume outdoor dining service starting this coming Monday. In-person operations at most retail businesses were also suspended, but those stores were given the go-ahead to reopen, while following safety precautions, starting May 11.
“Right now, we are starting to see the traffic in the downtown gradually pick up,” Dragon said. “But it will be a while until it gets to the point where it was before.”
Economic Development Director Medard Kopczynski noted that the revenues for the meters were down 95 percent since the meter fees were lifted, explaining the remaining 5 percent as likely coming from people who don’t realize the city isn’t charging meter fees.
In other news from Thursday’s meeting, the committee voted unanimously on a pair of recommendations that would provide some financial relief to city taxpayers, as well as businesses that rent space from the city.
The committee supported a resolution to waive the interest on late property taxes, in response to the widespread economic hardship stemming from the COVID-19 outbreak. City Assessor Dan Langille said it’s important that those who are able to pay taxes continue to do so, but that many in Keene are struggling to pay their bills.
“We are well aware [how] difficult it may be for some taxpayers to pay at this time with the current situations that they may be facing,” Langille said. “If the bills aren’t paid on time, it just begins to accrue at a rate of 8 percent per month; missed interest will only add to their financial hardship.”
He added that the proposal is to abate these interest payments for up to three months after the date a tax bill is due.
The other motion would waive the lease payments for nine businesses that lease their storefronts from the city, for one month. Like the proposal to waive interest on late property taxes, the goal is to alleviate the strain being felt by businesses that have seen a drop in income. For for-profit businesses that rent from the city, a tax is included in their monthly expense, but the city is discussing waiving just the rent itself.
Those businesses are Corner News, Jazzlyn Hospitality, Keene Barber, Luca’s Mediterranean Café, Monadnock Aviation, Pho Keene Great, The Flight Deck, Thomas Transportation and YOLO.
Both recommendations will head to the City Council for a vote. The council will next convene on Thursday, May 21, at 7 p.m.
As schools around the state shut down and students were told not to come back after their spring breaks because of the COVID-19 pandemic, college journalists quickly figured out how to get back into their newsrooms, even if it was only virtually, to keep reporting the news.
“They are writing the rule book on this,” said Kenna Griffin, president of the College Media Association. “I never covered a pandemic as a professional journalist, and especially not as a student journalist.”
Erin McNemar, the managing executive editor at the Keene State College Equinox, said she and her staff were prepared before the campus shut down in March to keep reporting.
“It was kind of something we decided pretty early on,” McNemar said. “I think it was the second week of March, we said that if for some reason we don’t come back we made a contingency plan.”
The Equinox has been reporting on news around the campus and the Keene community and publishing nearly daily online.
“News never sleeps,” McNemar said. “We just wanted to keep going. Even though students weren’t on campus it’s important to keep students informed.”
Josh Morrill, editor of The New Hampshire at the University of New Hampshire, said the paper was already going through a changeover in early spring of senior leaders stepping down and underclassmen, like Morrill, taking charge. Then the campus shut down.
“This has been really hard, but it’s helped us in some ways to really transition with our news staff,” Morrill said.
Morrill and The New Hampshire staff worked through some difficulties early on and decided to use the disruption to position the paper as more of a digital product.
“Even before we got told we weren’t going to come back, we wanted to make the NH a more digital entity,” Morrill said.
The challenges were daunting right away at Keene State, and some students were ready to call it quits at The Equinox when the campus was shut down, McNemar said. But talking through what needed to be done changed minds on the staff.
Julio Del Sesto, a Keene State journalism professor and one of the advisors for The Equinox, said the paper’s staff has been serious about producing news during the campus closure, sensing their responsibility as journalists.
“I’m very impressed,” Del Sesto said. “There’s a sort of attitude that, ‘We can handle it. Whatever it is,’ ”
The Equinox covered stories on the first COVID-19 case among faculty, as well as on the rest of the semester going to remote learning, and the postponement of commencement. Griffin, of CMA, said these are the types of stories that need to get told, and are often overlooked.
“University newspapers are more important than ever,” Griffin said.
Student journalists face a range of challenges in getting the news, from tracking down sources remotely while dealing with personal issues like where they are going to live while off campus. Some of them have had to fight to be recognized as essential employees in some states, as well.
“I’ve been really impressed with the work the students have been able to do,” Griffin said.
McNemar said her staff at The Equinox has been able to pull together and produce a paper. Connecting online has been a challenge, but they have made it work.
“I don’t think we’ve had any late stories,” McNemar said.
For reporters at The New Hampshire, getting information from school officials has been at challenging, Morrill said. Additionally, reporting is no longer a personal interaction as the pandemic and social distancing has cut most news gathering down to phone calls, Zoom chats, and emails, Morrill said.
Not all student papers have been able to deal with the challenges the pandemic has brought, though. Justine Walsh is heading into her senior year at Plymouth State University where she’ll be the incoming editor-in-chief for The Clock. That paper has moved online, though the publication has greatly slowed.
“We kind of decided to take a break,” Walsh said.
Walsh said it’s been difficult to coordinate online with all the staff, and The Clock has some positions still open for the coming year. With the campus closure, Walsh said a lot of the news events the paper typically covers have been canceled.
“The college isn’t putting on events and there wasn’t really much going on,” Walsh said.
Walsh said the COVID-19 coverage was already saturating other media, and she didn’t want to contribute to the constant barrage of news about the pandemic. That doesn’t leave a lot for The Clock staff to do.
“It feels like the only thing there is to cover is the virus,” Walsh said.
The staff at Southern New Hampshire University’s Penman Press used the campus shutdown to focus on reimagining the future of the news organization. SNHU doesn’t offer journalism as a major. So the paper’s staff is entirely volunteer and made up of students from all backgrounds and majors.
“We have a very young staff that still needs some training,” said Jon Boroshok, a SNHU communications professor and the Penman Press adviser.
Boroshok said the paper had already decided to take a break from publishing for the spring semester before the COVID-19 shut down to deal with a transition from graduating seniors and incoming underclassmen. Nikki Fain, who served as the paper’s editor-in-chief, said many of the incoming staffers needed training, and the paper itself needs to sort out what kind of a publication it should be.
The Penman Press published a print edition once every two weeks, and while that’s an important feature for campus life and the print edition provides experience for students, like those in graphic design, Boroshok and Fain see a more digital future for the publication. Enhancing the website will allow the SNHU student-journalists to cover more breaking news.
Fain said the coming fall term will see a change in the way SNHU offered education by incorporating more online learning. That means the Penman press should change to keep up.
“I think there’s a lot of opportunity,” Fain said.
Walsh is trying to focus on the coming fall term, and hopes to be ready for a fresh start with The Clock. Walsh wants to get the paper back to printing on a regular basis, not just publishing online.
“As long as I have some sort of game-plan I think we’ll be OK,” Walsh said.
Morrill is looking toward the fall and thinking digital. He wants to see more content go up online, and he plans to introduce podcasts to the lineup. He’s also considering cutting back on the number of pages printed in the weekly paper, once that goes back to being printed.
“The printing of the newspaper restricts us from putting more time into the digital product,” Morrill said.
Del Sesto said The Equinox’s staff lead by McNemar jumped right into the COVID-19 coverage and are showing themselves to be top-notch journalists in the process.
“Right now they’re covering the most important stories of their careers,” Del Sesto said.
Education officials statewide, including local leaders, are beginning to plan for how students and staff will return to school in the fall.
The School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce, which held its first meeting Thursday afternoon, will ultimately present recommendations for getting back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic to Gov. Chris Sununu, the N.H. Department of Education and school districts throughout the state.
Sununu initially ordered schools to close March 16 and transition to remote learning due to concern over COVID-19, later extending that order through the end of this school year.
The group of 12 — comprising educators, administrators, a parent and a student — aims to release preliminary recommendations by June 30 and develop more detailed plans within 30 days of that.
“When I think about what the work is, I really think about it as a broad community conversation about what the future of school is going to look like, particularly in September,” Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut said during the meeting, which was conducted via video conference.
The task force will develop its recommendations based on the input of six work groups convened by the education department, which will focus on instruction, student wellness, operations, technology, student voices and associations. The associations group includes members of various teacher and staff unions.
While no local leaders sit on the task force, there are three Cheshire County representatives in the work groups, which have a combined total of 75 members.
Robert Malay, superintendent of N.H. School Administrative Unit 29, which includes Keene and six nearby towns, is in the operations group. Greg Amend, a literature teacher at Vilas Middle School in Alstead, and Ed Bryans, a parent in the Marlborough School District, are in the instruction group.
Malay said Thursday that the work-group members will need to keep open minds and develop a flexible plan for reopening schools.
“There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “And so I think that will be important and critical work. Making sure we’re doing everything we can to keep people safe will be really critical.”
Amend, who is in his 10th year teaching in the Fall Mountain Regional School District, added that he is approaching his role in the instruction work group with the goal of keeping students and staff safe and promoting success in the classroom next year and into the future.
“This is a time where schools can take a terrible situation, a crisis, and use it to re-examine and improve on how classrooms provide universal supports that all students can benefit from at any one time,” Amend said in an email.
Bryans, whose 11-year-old daughter Camilla is a 6th-grader at Marlborough School, said he plans to collect feedback from numerous other parents to bring to the work group.
“I don’t want it to be my opinion of how things are working,” he said. “I want to gather information from people. Basically, I look at it as a representative. If I’m going to represent parents in this work group, I want to have other feedback.”
Malay added that he was not initially a member of a work group but received an invitation after expressing concern earlier this week about a lack of representation for southwestern New Hampshire.
“I did make that known, that I was concerned about the representation in this corner of the state, and perhaps that might have led to the appointment to that work group,” he said. “Maybe not. Maybe that was going to happen anyway. I don’t know. But I think it’s important that different regions are represented because the responses might be very different.”
Grant Bosse, a spokesman for the education department, said Thursday that the task force includes representatives from across the state. He added that the process to reopen schools is inclusive, noting that Thursday’s meeting reached a maximum of 1,000 participants.
Those selected have experience dealing with many different challenges, he noted.
“The Commissioner has stressed that these recommendations will not be the same for every school,” Bosse said in an email. “Local school officials will be able to use [School Transition Reopening and Redesign Taskforce] recommendations to make the best decisions for their schools.”
In addition to the task force and work groups, the school reopening process will feature a stakeholder survey. This questionnaire, which will be sent out the week of May 25, will solicit feedback from students, families and educators from throughout the state.
This entire process, Malay said, will take time.
“I think it’s important that we’re mindful that it is a process and it doesn’t move as quickly as everybody might hope,” he said. “But, trust that it is moving.”
The work groups will begin meeting next week. After receiving the results of the stakeholder surveys, the work groups will reconvene in early June and send their suggestions to the task force. The next task force meetings are scheduled for June 17 and June 23.